Plans for a snap poll on a key wage deal for tens of thousands of public servants at the federal government’s biggest department collapsed on Monday evening.
The Department of Human Services is blaming a legal manoeuvre by its main workplace union for derailing the plan for an early vote by workers at Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency.
But union leaders say the department has retreated in the face of certain defeat of a below-inflation offer and the loss of key rights and conditions.
The DHS was planning a ballot of its giant workforce within two weeks on an offer of a three-year deal worth 1.2 per cent a year.
The audacious plan to bypass the main public service union the CPSU and go straight to a ballot on the offer had infuriated the union’s leadership who claimed Human Services was trying to ram through a sub-standard deal.
The CPSU applied last week to industrial tribunal Fair Work Australia for an emergency hearing and the two sides spent Monday locked in talks at FWA without reaching agreement.
Late on Monday evening, DHS General Manager Hank Jongen confirmed his department had abandoned plans for the quick ballot.
The DHS is seen as a test case for 117 workplace agreements covering more than 160,000 public servants and victory for the department’s offer would have paved the way for below-inflation deals and the loss of key conditions across the bureaucracy.
But Mr Jongen said the CPSU had denied its members the chance of early vote on the offer, which was to be slashed to .75 per cent per year if not settled by September 1.
“Throughout the bargaining process, our goal has been to have a draft agreement for our staff to consider at the earliest opportunity,” Mr Jongen said.
“Today’s action by the CPSU follows six weeks of bargaining discussions, the provision of facilities to union representatives and considerable efforts to provide information and documents – including various versions of the draft agreement and the proposed remuneration offer.”
“Human Services was one of the first departments to start the bargaining process following the release of the government’s bargaining framework in March this year, and the first to make a remuneration offer to employees, despite assertions from the CPSU that we were ‘delaying the process’.”
Delaying the vote past September 1 means that $62 million earmarked for pay rises for 8,000 of DHS’s workers will be paid as intended and not be available to fund wage increases for the broader workforce.
“Unfortunately, our staff will not have the opportunity to vote on the current proposal, which includes the redistribution of the $62 million saving from salary advancement that would have been otherwise available,” Mr Jongen said
But CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said DHS management was in retreat because it knew its proposal faced certain defeat.
“Hank Jongen fails to mention that CPSU got the proposed agreement late last week and it was the first time staff saw it,” Ms Flood said on Monday evening.
“Human Services is desperately running for cover after their industrial smash-and-grab was exposed in Fair Work today.
“Nothing Hank can says can escape the fact that workers are outraged that two-thirds of their existing rights will be stripped away under this agreement.”